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DAVIS GAINES UNMASKED; ACTOR WHO HAS DONE `PHANTOM' ROLE MORE THAN ANYONE ELSE FEELS HIS PAIN.

Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Staff Writer

As childhoods go, actor Davis Gaines had a relatively happy one.

Growing up in Orlando, Fla., ``right before Disney came along,'' there wasn't much culture or theater to speak of. But his parents compensated by taking Gaines and his sisters to New York City to see Broadway shows, where he ``caught the acting bug early.''

Even so, Gaines harbored an inescapable sense of being a loner.

``I had a great family, great parents, great sisters,'' he says. ``I didn't suffer as a child. But I do remember feeling different, that I didn't fit in, (and I) marched basically to a different drummer in that I loved my theater stuff. I felt ugly, and I felt different, and kids made fun of me. And I think that initial feeling, that pain of not being accepted, was a core of my being for a long, long time.''

Though he's gotten over his youthful alienation and says he's now ``happier than I've ever been,'' Gaines will bring some of his old emotional baggage with him to the Pantages Theatre this fall.

Which is fitting, because he'll be reprising one of the musical theater's most angst-ridden roles, the title character in Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's ``The Phantom of the Opera.''

``I mean, (the Phantom) is a human being after all, he's not a monster,'' Gaines emphasizes. ``He's really a human being with human emotions. And I've tried to make him more human.''

Evidently, he's succeeded. At last count, Gaines has played the masked madman 1,956 times - more than any other actor in the world. Not even Michael Crawford can claim broader ownership of the role.

Gaines logged most of those performances during ``Phantom's'' 225-week initial run at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre, where it was seen by 3.4 million people between May 1989 and August 1993. It returned last fall for 17 weeks at the Pantages (with a different lead actor), drawing another 300,000 people and grossing $16.3 million in ticket sales.

Moving musical

After Los Angeles, Gaines went on to open the San Francisco production of ``Phantom'' before he transferred for 2-1/2 years to Broadway, where the high-tech operetta has been lodged at the Majestic Theatre since January 1988.

Not unlike Mark McGwire, chasing pro baseball's home-run record, Gaines says he's concentrating more on putting his best effort forward each night than on reaching the 2,000-performance mark - which he should pass in early October.

``It's not the number so much, but it's very rare that a show runs long enough to build up that many performances,'' he says. ``As we speak, I'm looking at a wall here (in the offices of Broadway L.A.) of posters of Carol Channing and Yul Brynner. That's a perfect example of performers who were able to keep returning to a role over and over again.''

What keeps him returning to ``Phantom,'' he says, is that it's one of the rare musical theater roles with substance. There's ``a constant push and pull,'' a ``yin and yang'' represented by the character's sensitive, artistic side and his vengeful, malicious streak.

``I've always felt for the phantom and I've felt that he was basically a misunderstood character. He grew up with a deformity from birth and lived in a cage and really thought of himself as a freak of nature, and so he pretty much has this self-image problem that he can't figure out, and it causes him to do some evil things because he's backed into corners so many times. He doesn't have very good social skills.''

Substantial Gaines

Since he last performed on stage here, Gaines has diversified his own professional skills. He left ``Phantom'' to star in the world premiere of Lloyd Webber's ``Whistle Down the Wind,'' and although the show did poorly Gaines says he learned a lot from working on it.

``That doesn't happen very often, where Hal Prince is on the other end of the line offering you a job,'' he says, referring to the legendary Broadway director.

Lately, Gaines has appeared on ``Chicago Hope'' and ``Veronica's Closet,'' released his first CD, ``Against the Tide'' on the LAP label - short for ``Life After Phantom'' - and recently starred as Bobby in Boston's Huntington Theatre Company production of Stephen Sondheim's ``Company.''

He also has sung with a number of major symphony orchestras, including the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra last season. This fall, he's hoping to spend his time off from ``Phantom'' making a feature film, about which he'll say little at this stage.

``I play the bad guy of course. I always seem to be the bad guy. Those are the most interesting parts, anyway.''

Returning to the show after nearly two years has been ``an almost totally fresh experience,'' says the actor, now happily based in Los Angeles after years of living in a sunless New York apartment.

What hasn't changed, he says, is his empathy for the world's misfits, whether or not they wear opera cloaks and swing from chandeliers.

``I don't regret any of my childhood growing up, because I think it's made me more sensitive to other people's feelings. I think it's made me more sensitive to the underdog.

``I love to meet kids and their families after the show, and there's always one kid who hangs back and isn't gregarious, and I just go to that kid innately because I know what they're feeling, because I was a shy kid, too.''

The facts

What: ``The Phantom of the Opera.''

Where: Sunday through Nov. 1 at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $17-$67. Call (213) 365-3555.

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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 28, 1998
Words:961
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